Happily ever after? Advice for mid-career academics

Getting a permanent job is only the beginning, not a fairy-tale ending, says Helen De Cruz

March 24, 2016
Kazakh couple in fairy tale dress

For a graduate student, postdoc or any other academic who is not in a permanent position, it seems that “happily ever after” starts once one obtains a tenure-track position or equivalent, a bit like the female protagonist finding a suitable partner in a Jane Austen novel. People outside of the tenure track look on in disbelief as their tenured and tenure-track colleagues grumble about committee work, heavy teaching loads, the lack of accommodation for their spouses, decreasing pension and healthcare benefits, and the decline of wages in real terms. The thought presents itself that “if only I had such a job I wouldn’t complain”. When I was a postdoc, I entertained such thoughts.

Now I know that obtaining a permanent position is only the beginning. It definitely beats being off the tenure track, but it is not happily ever after. You need to be savvy about your career in all stages; all the way from searching for a tenure track job to being a full professor. In Jane Austen’s novels, it makes sense that the match is the end of the novel. After all, women in Jane Austen’s time had few prospects, and the main way to have economic and social goods was to marry, and that was the one and crucial decision to make. With the erosion of tenure and an increasing mobility of academics, finding your tenure-track job no longer resembles a Jane Austen novel, where you find yourself with your dream job (Mr Darcy) or a job you deem suboptimal (but, hey, your PhD is getting stale and you need something permanent, Mr Collins).

According to several surveys, associate professors are less happy and experience less career satisfaction compared to people of other tenure-line ranks. The job uncertainty is finally gone but new doubts creep in: is this it? Here are some points of advice.

In so far as you haven’t been able to before, try to find a better work-life balance

Working long hours and having no personal time seems to come with being a tenure-track lecturer or being on the market for years. It is difficult to shift gears and try to treat your job as just a job. But it is important to do this at this stage. Try to cordon off some time for yourself and, if applicable, your family. For instance, try to not do any work-related stuff for one day per week. Or keep your evenings free. I hope to heed my own advice as soon as semester ends here!

Cultivate some non-academic activities

It is fun and revitalising to do something that has nothing to do with your research, such as reading fiction books, going for walks, singing in an amateur choir, etc.

Try to work on things you find enjoyable and are passionate about…

… even if this means it won’t be published in The Philosophical Review or Mind. With tenure, or its equivalent status elsewhere, you can afford to write papers and do research you really enjoy even if it does not find its way into mainstream journals. Finding joy in one’s work is the reason many of us got into philosophy in the first place. Of course, there might still be opportunity costs, but doing work because others value it, at the expense of work you would value for itself, also has its costs.

If you are unhappy in your situation, try to move out

For whatever reason you may be unhappy in your present situation. You realise that academic permanent jobs are rare, and that many people would love to trade places with you. You may even feel survivor’s guilt for having made it this far, and as a result, you may feel an obligation to stay in your present position because others find it wonderful, not because you do. This is never a good reason to stay.

First, ask yourself if there is any way you could improve the situation without having to leave your job (eg, is a reduction in teaching load possible? do you feel burned out, and could you take leave such as a sabbatical?) Do not be afraid to ask for these things at your present employer.

If this does not work out or your employer cannot help your situation (for instance because you do not flourish in the geographical area where the university is), I would suggest you go on the market. This is easier to do from a tenure-track position, but it can be done at the associate level. Unless you are a research superstar (and even then, see this story), do not wait around for an offer to come your way. Instead, actively apply far and wide.

Many positions are open-rank, and in case of doubt you can ask the head of search committee if they are willing to hire at a senior level (associate professor, senior lecturer etc). When you do receive an outside offer, try to negotiate harder than you would (or presumably did) for an entry-level job. By now you know what you need, eg, a higher salary, a spousal appointment, less teaching. Negotiate accordingly.

A counteroffer has to be handled with care – think of the bigger picture: will I be happier with this counteroffer? Balance the new situation at your home institution to the job you have been offered. Do not take a counteroffer merely out of loyalty for the existing institution, or refuse it merely out of spite. (If you feel very spiteful, though, it may be a good idea to move anyway.)

If you think there is a deeper reason that academic life ultimately does not suit you, try to find a non-academic job instead. There are people such as Zachary Ernst who found their way into satisfying non-academic careers, and here is a recent testimony by Matt Drabek about his work in the non-academic sector (as well as my interviews with seven philosophers who work outside of academia).

The best way to go about this is to network with non-academic philosophers (there are dedicated LinkedIn groups) to obtain a better view of what possible career prospects you could have. It is sometimes necessary to get additional training (eg, in programming), which is often available through online courses. You can also network locally with people who work for thinktanks, start-ups and other firms where philosophers have found employment before. Job advertisements for these go all year round.

Apply for grants and fellowships

Fellowships, grants, research leaves, etc, are a good way to energise your research, for instance, to kickstart a new research project. Unfortunately, the odds on getting such grants are low, and they take a lot of time to write. Still, I find personally I work well with grant support – it gives me the drive to focus on a project and to get the job done in time. It helps research as grants usually come with teaching relief, money to organise a workshop, or to pay research assistants. Grants provide a way to network with philosophers working in the same programme, which also is beneficial in the long term. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Engage in peer mentoring, support groups, or seek professional advice

As I said earlier, it is a mistake to think that permanent lecturers have got it all figured out. They don’t. Rejections still hurt. One can be stuck in a rut, out of new ideas, find it hard to finish that book project. Writing groups, or finding support from a peer mentor (someone who is in a similar position and to whom you can turn for advice, often a mutualistic relationship) can help. There are also professional career coaches who offer help for a fee.

Say no

The difference between the successful and the very successful – so Warren Buffett may have said – is that the very successful know how to say no. Mid-career academics still have a hard time saying no; I know I have! The motivation for saying no is that you can say yes to projects you really care about. The following is a good heuristic: at this point, you can afford to say no to projects that you do not feel excited about, thus freeing up your time for projects you want to say yes to. Although we have a duty to others to do some share of refereeing, etc, you can say no to refereeing once you have done your share (which you can establish beforehand, eg, referee at least three times what you submit in a year or similar heuristic). Often mid-career folks are asked to do more than their share. You can also say no to book reviews of books you wouldn’t spontaneously read.

Loyalty to colleagues rather than fealty towards institutions

Universities are corporatised entities that do not care about your personal well-being or development, or do so only to the extent that these affect how you perform in the job. As a consequence, you do not owe your institution fealty or loyalty. What you do owe them is to do a good job as a professor as specified in your contractual agreements: teach well, do research in line with the institution’s expectations, and do a fair share of the administration, committee and other work. Many mid-career people find it helpful to think in terms of loyalty to their colleagues, rather than loyalty to an abstract institution. Philosophy is a small world, and if you do choose to move on chances are you’ll see your former colleagues again. Whether you spend your entire tenured career in one place or move around, treat your colleagues well.

Helen De Cruz is senior lecturer in philosophy at Oxford Brookes University. This post originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon blog.

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